Located in south-east China, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai, Hangzhou has historically been an important hub for artists and scholars. In recent times, it has earned an enviable reputation for cultivating and exporting art and culture. Hangzhou cemented its artistic credentials with the opening last December – after nine years of preparation – of By Art Matters, the cultural centre and main architectural feature of the city’s OōEli multi-use complex.  

By Art Matters’ inaugural exhibition, ‘A Show About Nothing’, explores the concept of ‘nothingness’. Bringing together more than 30 local and international artists – including Francis Alÿs from Belgium, Maurizio Cattelan from Italy, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yoko Ono from Japan, and Cady Noland and Robert Grosvenor from the US – the show was proposed by the museum’s director Francesco Bonami, and curated by Stefano Collicelli Cagol together with Wu Tian and Sun Man.

One interpretation of the subject is German artist Hans Haacke’s White Sail (1964 – 1965). White fabric floating in mid-air is loosely mounted on the wall by thin threads and weights. Its form is determined both by artificial wind and visitors’ movements, making visible the otherwise unnoticeable interplay between the space, the people and the artworks within it. Museum visitors are all too often overloaded with images and information at the expense of the artistic experience. And while conventional exhibitions tell the stories of others, ‘A Show About Nothing’ ‘invites you to tell your own story’, says Bonami. ‘The exhibition is a toast to empty spaces, the nothingness in our everyday lives.’ 

Installation view of The Reason Why Classic Is by Geng Jianyi, in ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, BY ART MATTERS
Installation view of The Reason Why Classic Is by Geng Jianyi, in ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan

Visitors can seek their own interpretation of nothingness through a selection of seminal Chinese artworks on display including those by Zhengzhou artist Geng Jianyi, who had been an active voice in the 85 New Wave art movement and was an accomplished painter before venturing into performance, photography, installation and video. In the series The Reason Why Classic Is, Immerse and Ten Seconds Immersion (12) (both 1999), empty books of different textures and binding methods have been soaked in dye for varying lengths of time. As the colours bleed towards the centre of the books, they form a symmetrical pattern yet with subtle differences each time. Books are a representation of wisdom and authority, and through these works Geng aimed to denounce how ideologies infiltrate societies through cultural media. 

Shandong artist Liu Guoqiang’s Untitled (2021) consists of nine small digital screens, each showing a dissected minute hand of a clock in a one-minute video loop that plays asynchronously. A complete image of the clock will never be formed, yet it still depicts the notion of time as an undeniably dominant force in reality, no matter how we try to distort it. Bread (2020), by Swedish artist Ghislaine Leung, releases a bread-like aroma through an under-floor ventilation system. The presence of the sensory installation signifies that experience and engagement are both essential in a cultural institution. 

Liu Guoqiang, Untitled, Image courtesy of Liu Guoqiang. Installation View ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, BY ART MATTERS
Liu Guoqiang, Untitled, Image courtesy of Liu Guoqiang. Installation view  of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan

Situated between the picturesque West Lake (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and Xixi Wetland, OōEli – designed by architect Renzo Piano – has a notched trapezoidal layout, about 260m x 175m, composed of 17 buildings with public space and greenery. By Art Matters resides in building number one, which is designed as the starting point for visitors to the complex. It is Piano’s first museum building in China, envisaged as a hub of the international and domestic art scene and a centre for research and artistic practice, where nature, art, architecture and culture intersect. The nine-storey structure has a total exhibition area of about 2,000 sq m, with a lecture hall, library, office spaces, a meditation tea house created by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and a harvestable tea tree garden on the roof – a tribute to Hangzhou as the hometown of Longjing tea.  

The museum team also commissioned British artist Richard Long to create a site-specific installation, Boulder Line, in the complex, and initiated a collaboration between Theaster Gates and the B1OCK concept store, where the American artist proposed ideas for the interior space, including antique objects and an installation of eight mixed-media artworks – a minimalist hybrid of exhibition and retail. §

Robert Grosvenor, Untitled. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, BY ART MATTERS
Robert Grosvenor, Untitled. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan
Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan
Rudolf Stingel, Untitled. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, BY ART MATTERS

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan

Fernando Ortega, Rosa Subido. Courtesy of the arist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City /New York. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou

Fernando Ortega, Rosa Subido. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City /New York. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan

Robert Zhao Renhui, A Heartwarming Feeling (Series). Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART gallery. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, BY ART MATTERS

Robert Zhao Renhui, A Heartwarming Feeling (Series). Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART gallery. Installation view of ’A Show About Nothing,’ 2021, Hangzhou, By Art Matters. Photographer: Wu Qingshan